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War Never Changes, a review of 51st State, The New Era, and The Winter, by Ignacy Trzewiczek.

As I sit down to write this review, I really want to write pages and pages about what I think about this game. There is A LOT to talk about here, so I apologize in advance for my somewhat scattered review.

To simplify a few things I've decided to avoid doing a gameplay walkthrough, because you can find good reviews out there that talk about how the game works. Specifically, Ricky Royal aka Box of Delights has a very good rules/gameplay video for 51st State & The Winter. If you are interested in learning more about the game, that is probably the best place to start.

51st State/The New Era/The Winter, by Ignacy Trzewiczek, is a 2 - 6 player tableau building card game that tells the story of factions vying to control the ruins of the United States, set in the world of the Polish post apocalyptic RPG Neuroshima. Don't worry if you aren't familiar with this setting (most folks aren't) all you need to know is that it is a slightly bleaker, less ironic version of the Fallout Universe. Much of the art work in the game clearly harkens to the Fallout 3 videogame.

In this review I've elected to review the game in what I believe to be its ultimate form, which is a fusion of all three sets, using the rules from The New Era and The Winter; with the cards of 51st State added essentially as an expansion. Using this mix I have elected to add variety to the game by "turning off" conquest actions vs. your opponents if you want a less confrontational experience. I have played the game both with and without pvp conquest actions. While I think the "on" rules are perfect, the "off" rules work very well in playing with my son. In either game variant I have elected to allow players keep pvp negotiation contact rules. Having seen several comments from Ignacy on this game, I believe it is his intent to release a new master set combining all 3 sets using the rules variant options I've described. It seems like this is most likely something that will be done next year for Essen.

So what is this game really? At its heart this game is Ignacy's vision of a mechanically beefed up and highly thematic San Juan or Race for the Galaxy with a healthy mix of Glory to Rome. This is a card based, tableau/engine builder with more then you normally get going on under the hood. The tableau you create is built through a tightly coordinated series of drafting, resource management, and worker assignment mechanisms. Like Glory to Rome, each location card has several different uses (it can be a trade contract, it can be the spoils gained from a military action, it can be a location with a special ability, it can be a resource for generating an action, and it can be used to build upon previously built locations).

There are three things about this game that make it stand apart as a superb game. First, unlike many engine/tableau builders, I feel that the game allows a player to ramp up their engine very quickly. In my experience, I feel as if my engine usually is fully developed roughly half way through the game. In the second half of the game you will spend most of your efforts trying to protect your engine (from opponents and from stagnation). I love games that allow you to actually build your engine and enjoy the results of your efforts. Far too many games end just as you get your engine in place, and you only get maybe one really good turn with the engine running. This is NOT one of those games. Early on in the game, you may feel as if you are only getting one or two cards out a turn, and you are almost never using your better cards to their best degree. By the end of the game, I frequently see players playing six, seven, eight cards and shuffling around a pile of resources. Despite the large number of things to do, the game moves surpisingly fast. My kids and I had very little trouble with AP once we were comfortable with the iconography. Most actions you take go very quickly and so gameplay passes around the table at a good clip. Even the most complex combos go fast simply because you will have to take several actions spread out over many turns to pull them off. As a result, you will often find that a round feels a lot like players taking several turns with only taking small steps only to pull off something very significant. This gives a very satisfying rhythm to the game.

The second thing about this game that really stands out is the thematic feel of the mechanisms in the game. Once you recognize how the mechanisms of the game represent story telling elements, the gameplay is brimming with theme. If you allow yourself to indulge in the theme, the story of the game unfolds beautifully. Very rarely do any of the cards or mechanisms feel as if they are purely abstracted game elements. Compare this to San Juan, Race for the Galaxy, or Glory to Rome and you will see just how much work and effort Ignacy put into imbedding the theme into the game. Almost every single card ability makes sense thematically, and not in just one way either. Remember that each card has several abilities, each use of the card is different thematically and it commits to the internal story logic of the game. Allow me to make up a card to give you an example. Lets say there was a card called "Gas Station". If you want to have this location join your "state" you would have to send your people to incorporate it into your organization. Once it has become a part of your organization you can use the Gas Station to generate fuel for you to use in your other exploits (like say establishing trade routes). While it is in your tableau, your opponent may even set up a trade agreement with you or barter your fuel for manpower, or they can even just steal some fuel from you and blow it up. Alternatively, instead of incorporating the Gas Station into your state, you could just send your thugs over to it to destroy it and loot whatever they can find. Finally, you could even set up a trade agreement with the imaginary current owners of the Gas Station and have them send you resources every turn. The end result is that pretty much every card in your tableau will be doing something thematic and contribute to your sense that you are building up a progressively larger and larger organization.

One brief aside, the artwork for this game is some of the best I've seen in this kind of a card game. There are very few pieces that don't fit stylistically, or are simply subpar. Better yet, there are also very few repeat cards, most are unique. The art offers considerable variety, and consistent high quality.

The third really special thing about this game is how interactive it can be. When you take full advantage of the pvp negotiation and conquest actions the game truly blossoms. This is NOT a multiplayer solitaire game like most tableau builders. You have your normal indirect conflict via card drafting (both in the standard card draft, and the additional drafting mechanic built into the frozen city part of The Winter expansion) and worker assignment (you can assign your workers to some of your opponents buildings in a nasty trade off that is similar to using your opponents' buildings in Lords of Waterdeep). BUT, that isn't all! When you add the rules for pvp negotiation, you can establish trade contracts with your opponents' locations allowing you to help struggling players gain access to another players resources. This is a brilliant catch up mechanism that helps to eliminate the biggest luck element from the base game (if you are lucky and pull a great production location, your opponent can reap some benefits from your luck). Adding this rule adds considerable player interaction and gives the game a real Cold War vibe of hostility. If you want to elevate your game from a Cold War (which is more interaction then you get in Race for the Galaxy) to open conflict, you need only add the pvp Conquest rules. This simple rule set allows you to send your military forces against an opponent's location. If successful, you destroy your opponent's location and immediately gain resources from the location. The victim of your aggression in most cases isn't entirely devastated by what you've done though. They can salvage supplies from the ruined building and even generate bonus victory points by rebuilding on the foundation of the old building. Conquest actions ultimately serve as an equalizer for players who don't get the best production cards and they do a marvelous job of preventing a run away leader problem, especially in games with more then 2 players.

Where the game falls short is in many of the same criticisms that follow Portal's other games: confusing rules presentations and complex iconography. To fully understand the rules, you either need a teacher who knows the game, or you need to put in some time researching the game. IMHO, you can completely ignore the rules for 51st State, skip directly to The New Era's rules. Before you struggle with The New Era's rule book, read any number of the rule guides posted in the files section here at BGG, they do a marvelous job of clearly restating the rules, then read The New Era's rules (conclude by reading the FAQ & errata). The Winter's rules are excellent out of the box and don't require any effort besides reading the rules for The New Era. Even though I had to put some effort into figuring out the rules, I think the rules as a whole are pretty easy to figure out and are FAR easier to get through then something like Mage Knight. While this game does have somewhat dense iconography at first glance, I assure you it does make sense after only one or two plays.

Another criticism I think that could be made is that 51st State's rules set is inferior to The New Eras in a couple different ways. The New Era adds rules for pvp actions that help avoid run away leader issues, they clean up some of the chunkiness in the redevelopment rules, and most importantly, they balance the leader cards with The Winter expansion. I wouldn't say that 51st State is broken if you don't use The New Era rules, but I would argue it is an inferior game. The Winter expansion takes the base 51st State from being a 6 or a 7 and takes it to a 7 or 8. The New Era takes that 7 or 8 and makes the overall game a solid 9. It really does rival Glory to Rome and Mage Wars in my book. I'm bringing this discussion under my criticisms to show that I strongly feel that you need all 3 parts to get the most out of this game.

Final conclusions. With Imperial Settlers just around the corner, there will be a lot of renewed interest in the 51st State series simply because IS builds upon some of the mechanisms found in 51st State. It has yet to be seen if the two games will be distinct enough to warrant owning both. My sense from the early reviews is that for now IS will serve as a good introduction to the deeper world of 51st State. Despite the likely success of IS, Ignacy still appears to be very emphatic that he will continue to grow the 51st State line with additional small card expansions, and will in fact have a big box expansion at some point. For gamers like me who are impatient and want an interactive top tier tableau building card game, the 51st State games are a must buy if you can get ahold of all three major sets. Good luck, The New Era is becoming tougher to find (its a good sign if nobody wants to sell their copy, right?).
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Runar Dankel
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Great review, mainly because I agree completely
 
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Kevin Eastwood
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This is a game that I really want to appreciate, but haven't quite hit the mark with it yet. I've only played the game a few times, but now want to play it again because of the review.
 
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A Brave New Geek
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I loved this game, the wife wouldn't go near the theme! IS should fix that hopefully.

Not sure it is comparable to Mage Wars though. Both great games nonetheless.
 
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Scott Sexton
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abravenewgeek wrote:
I loved this game, the wife wouldn't go near the theme! IS should fix that hopefully.

Not sure it is comparable to Mage Wars though. Both great games nonetheless.


Oh, I agree that Mage Wars has nothing to do with this game. I only brought it up because it is one of the few games I rate this high.
 
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David
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Thanks for the review. The New Era is an excellent game but with so many card games around it has slipped under the radar when in fact it is up there with the best.
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Stephen Shaw
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Out of curiosity, how do you mix and match in order to end up with the best 51st/new era/winter playing experience?
 
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Beatrix Schilke
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Great review. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the game(s). It was very interesting to read.
51st State (and The New Era / Winter / Ruins) is one of my favorite games and I use every opportunity to introduce it to other gamers.
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scottatlaw wrote:
abravenewgeek wrote:
I loved this game, the wife wouldn't go near the theme! IS should fix that hopefully.

Not sure it is comparable to Mage Wars though. Both great games nonetheless.


Oh, I agree that Mage Wars has nothing to do with this game. I only brought it up because it is one of the few games I rate this high.


Cool. Mage Wars is one of my few tens.

I believe there is another expansion on the way for this called Ruins which may be of interest.
 
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Daniël Muilwijk
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Lovely review!
scottatlaw wrote:
Having seen several comments from Ignacy on this game, I believe it is his intent to release a new master set combining all 3 sets using the rules variant options I've described. It seems like this is most likely something that will be done next year for Essen.

scottatlaw wrote:
Despite the likely success of IS, Ignacy still appears to be very emphatic that he will continue to grow the 51st State line with additional small card expansions, and will in fact have a big box expansion at some point.

Could someone link to those comments?
 
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Scott Sexton
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Seabie wrote:
Lovely review!
scottatlaw wrote:
Having seen several comments from Ignacy on this game, I believe it is his intent to release a new master set combining all 3 sets using the rules variant options I've described. It seems like this is most likely something that will be done next year for Essen.

scottatlaw wrote:
Despite the likely success of IS, Ignacy still appears to be very emphatic that he will continue to grow the 51st State line with additional small card expansions, and will in fact have a big box expansion at some point.

Could someone link to those comments?


He has made similar comments a couple different times. Here is one instance:

http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1205624/availability

Keep an eye out for the Cardboard Jungle's upcoming interview with Ignacy. I guarantee you they will be asking him about this.
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Scott Sexton
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abravenewgeek wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
abravenewgeek wrote:
I loved this game, the wife wouldn't go near the theme! IS should fix that hopefully.

Not sure it is comparable to Mage Wars though. Both great games nonetheless.


Oh, I agree that Mage Wars has nothing to do with this game. I only brought it up because it is one of the few games I rate this high.


Cool. Mage Wars is one of my few tens.

I believe there is another expansion on the way for this called Ruins which may be of interest.


I ordered this directly from Portal a few weeks back. I can't wait to get it to the table.
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sshawmd wrote:
Out of curiosity, how do you mix and match in order to end up with the best 51st/new era/winter playing experience?


It depends a bit on who I'm playing with. Let me answer your question by more fully explaining how I view the different sets & rules.

51st State by itself is a good game, but it is flawed. I don't ever encourage folks to play this set by itself.

Winter is a longer game, plus it allows you the extra resources to get your engine going faster. Winter balances out the leader & contact cards and almost entirely eliminates the "luck of the draw" flaw that is present in the base 51st State (and Race for the Galaxy) by introducing the frozen city. In fact, I refuse to play the game without The Winter because it does such a brilliant job of balancing and enhancing the game.

In many ways The New Era is pretty much a superficial face lift and cleaning up of the 51st State rule set with 5 critical improvements:

1- Elimination of the hand limit.
2- Clean up of the contact token / contact action rules.
3- Improvement of the redevelopment rules.
4- Eliminating the rule that gives you a point for killing your leader.
5- Introduction of the pvp Conquest and Negotiation Contact actions (plus the reconstruction action).

The first four items I name above are no brainer improvements over 51st State's rule set and aren't really debatable. The last one, the introduction of the pvp Conquest and Negotiation Contact action ARE debatable. I personally enjoy a bit more player interaction in my games, so the ability to use my opponents buildings to my advantage (or to blow them up even) is a very attractive option and a highly thematic one given the game's setting. At the very least I believe that these rules allow players, especially in games with more then 2 players, to prevent a run away leader problem.

SOOOOO how do I prefer to play the game?

If I'm playing with new players and I'm teaching the game, I use 51st State's cards, The Winter's Contact Cards & Leader Cards, and I use the rules from New Era with the pvp Conquest & Negotiation rules "turned off".

If I'm playing with my kids, I use all cards from all 3 sets. I also use the New Era Rules with only the pvp Conquest rules "turned off" because the pvp Negotiation rules are a nice way of minimizing Race for the Galaxy style "luck of the draw".

If I'm playing with experienced players or only my son and I want a meatier game, I'll play with all sets and full New Era Rules.

The Ruins expansion will probably be something I mix in with everything like the promo cards.
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Bruno Gaia
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Great Review. Just one lazy thought: to me NE is much superior to 51st just in terms of theme (you can actually acttack your opponent's positions) and NE + WInter is the perfect combo.

ANyway, I don't know what will become of NE, 51st and Winter afetr IS but there sure is no way I'm selling my NE XD!
 
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brunogaia wrote:
Great Review. Just one lazy thought: to me NE is much superior to 51st just in terms of theme (you can actually acttack your opponent's positions) and NE + WInter is the perfect combo.

ANyway, I don't know what will become of NE, 51st and Winter afetr IS but there sure is no way I'm selling my NE XD!


I agree with you 100%!

Ignacy has said that he is going to keep producing small expansions, so I think we are ok. I for one want more factions.
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Arthur Rutyna
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Well I just own New Era, and have only played it 4 times. But I think that game on its own is REALLY good. I'm not interested in getting 51st State. What does Winter bring to the table?
 
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